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UA faculty take aim at Coghill's bill for guns on campus

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- One of the three unions representing faculty members at University of Alaska campuses across the state went on record Friday opposing a bill to allow more access to guns on campuses.

The executive board of the University of Alaska Federation of Teachers unanimously approved a resolution backing the UA administration in opposing the measure by Fairbanks Sen. John Coghill, Senate Bill 176, that would allow people to carry guns on campuses.

Earlier this week, UA President Pat Gamble testified against Coghill’s bill, arguing that the current rules on guns are reasonable, constitutional and designed to protest public safety and individual rights.

UAFT President Tim Powers, an associate professor of information systems at the Juneau campus, said the board supports Gamble’s view that the legislation is off-target. UAFT represents more than 300 faculty members at campuses across the state, including the rural campuses and former community colleges.

"Faculty members have started talking about what it would be like to have people carrying guns into classrooms," Powers said in a phone interview. "It’s unclear whether it would remain with concealed weapons or people could bring their hunting rifles in and lay them on the desks. That would be a little disconcerting to the faculty members."

"There are really two issues here. One is the fact of people being able to carry guns on campus. The second is pretty much stripping the board of regents of its power,’" said Powers.

In its 13-page review of Coghill’s bill, the UA administration said the measure raises constitutional questions about the power of the University of Alaska Board of Regents to make policy for the university. A legal opinion from the Legislature says the state "may" have the authority to direct the regents on this matter, but in the same sentence the opinion says it is "likely" that Coghill's bill is constitutional.

The Alaska Constitution says the university "shall be governed by a board of regents," which makes policy for the system. The UA administration said that the university "manages its premises and responds appropriately and immediately to known, potentially unsafe situations involving weapons."

But if Coghill’s bill passes, it will be unable to do that anymore, the university said.

"Today if someone openly carrying a weapon approaches a UA graduation ceremony or sporting event, enters UA housing, displays a weapon in a classroom or takes up a position with a weapon in a corridor, UA can contact them, ask them to put the weapon in secure storage or a locked car, or ask them to leave campus with the weapon if they decline. These are administrative procedures," wrote Michael Hostina and Matt Cooper, UA attorneys.

They said that if Coghill’s bill becomes law, the university would be unable "to restrict even openly carried long guns into these settings and must wait for that person to commit a crime to take action -- even if UA knows the student, staff or visitor is depressed, suicidal, angry about a grade, evaluation or disciplinary action, or in a serious dispute with another student, colleague or significant other in that location."

"This creates a significant potential for preventable tragedy and liability where one office of the University knows about the circumstances but the institution cannot take action," they said.

Under Coghill’s plan, administrative penalties would be prohibited, and the regents would lose any meaningful authority with respect to weapons, but the school would remain legally responsible. The proposal would significantly impact the university’s ability to "manage risk proactively and to respond to a range of inappropriate and even criminal misconduct."

The 13-page UA analysis has not been posted on the legislative website, but a variety of documents supporting Coghill’s bill have been posted. Those include 22 letters posted as part of one file, along with three dozen supporting documents.

The bill would require a $450,000 study to determine what areas at 414 university facilities would be off-limits to guns.

"Given the presence of K-12 programming and large numbers of K-12 students on UA campuses, and the heightened standard of protection afforded K-12 students on K-12 property, UA will face significant liability risk if UA does not create restricted access areas," the fiscal note says.

There is no estimate of how much money will be needed to design, construct and operate restricted access areas and no estimate of the cost of "additional policing, counseling, student discipline, insurance, claims and litigation defense costs."

The bill was referred to the judiciary committee only, which is chaired by Coghill. The next hearing is set for Monday, March 10 at 1:30 p.m.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole.